Is your autistic child biting everything? Here’s how to stop it.
- Why do autistic children bite?
- What NOT to do about your autistic child biting
- How to stop autistic children from biting
Why do autistic children bite?
Biting isn’t always an autistic trait. It can be indicative of a non-autistic struggle, such as a communication issue.
Consider the age of the autistic child. For example, a two-year-old might bite because they’re teething, angry or trying to get your attention. On the other hand, a three-year-old might bite to release aggression.
All autistic behaviors are communication. The negative or unwanted behaviors are just perceived that way because society had this thing where kids are expected to be seen, not heard or felt.
Autistic children who struggle to communicate their needs and feelings bite to communicate. This can happen even if they speak, because your speaking autistic child might be non-speaking.
They need something
Again, this falls under communication deficits. If your autistic child is biting themselves, others or objects, they are communicating and/or fulfilling a need.
Autistic children never do anything for no reason. No child’s behavior ever happens for no reason.
They might need food or a drink yet struggle to communicate this, and turn to biting instead. On the other hand, they might just need something to bite.
Deducing why your autistic child is biting in the first place will help you figure out how to stop the behavior.
What NOT to do about your autistic child biting
While researching what tips may be out there, I found many articles telling parents to limit their verbal responses and reactions, avoid engaging with the child, and ignore the behavior.
In Deaf culture, it’s common ground to tap someone’s shoulder or arm, or the table, counter, or surface nearby to grab their attention. In hearing culture, this is considered rude, bad behavior, or something that must be stopped immediately.
Your child is autistic. Their behavior is part of autistic culture, meaning it’s common and a normal part of their culture.
All behavior is communication. Autistic people often struggle to communicate their needs due to alexithymia and language processing.
Your speaking autistic child might actually be non-speaking. But they speak! How can this be so?
Have you heard of autistic masking?
An avoidant parent-child relationship is one in which the parent doesn’t meet their child’s needs. That child then learns to meet their own needs independently. On the surface, this sounds normal, but doing everything yourself is a trauma response.
The last thing you should do is avoid responding to you child who bites.
This means that instead:
- DO show that it hurts. This teaches empathy. Seeing a physical action hurt someone else teaches your child the consequences of inflicting physical harm. Not reacting won’t teach them anything, and they’ll continue to do it.
- DO cry out if it hurts. This is communication that something hurts. Not reacting in this way may inadvertently cause the behavior to continue.
Don’t be dramatic with your reactions to biting, but don’t be unresponsive, either. ALL behavior is communication, and that includes yours. If you don’t communicate that it hurts, they will perceive it as not hurting.
You have to match your autistic child’s energy by communicating on their level, not by expecting them to comply with yours.
How to stop autistic children from biting
If your autistic child is biting regularly, here are the next steps to take.
1. Rule out medical and dental causes.
When I was in elementary school, I would bite other people, myself and inanimate objects. I had this tooth on my jaw that hurt when I bit down, but it hurt worse when I wasn’t.
Contrary to popular belief, autistic people are generally not indifferent to pain. The lot of us experience hypersensitivity.
Fast forward (or rewind?) to me at 19 years old, when I went to the dentist for impacted wisdom teeth and a broken tooth after a botched root canal. My dentist asked me how I was still functioning, because the state of my mouth was one that would have caused anyone else to crumble.
Autistic masking hides the pain, but the behavior does not. This isn’t adapting to the pain. Rather, the pain becomes part of our norm so much that we stop including it as “new” pain. We aren’t habituating; we’re masking.
2. Improve communication.
The more communication methods your child has access to, the more capable they are of communicating their needs and struggles.
This doesn’t mean you need to put them into speech therapy. Adapt to your child’s level of communication instead of imposing your communication preference onto your child.
If your autistic kid previously spoke and “refuses to” now, they’re non-speaking. Non-speaking autistic people mask as speaking autistic people for survival, not because they’re truly speaking.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices or sign language are alternative ways to communicate with your child. Focus less on making your child ‘use their words’ and more on communicating.
Refrain from “social stories”, as this is a form of ABA that encourages autistic children to mask. Dive straight into children’s books for all kids instead.
3. Offer more sensory options.
Crunchy foods, chewy foods, chewable stim toys — these are officially “sensory tools”. If you need to advocate for your child’s access to reasonable accommodations in school, and they’re biting, focus on asking for sensory tools.
Introducing a wide variety of sensory tools to your child exposes them to more opportunities to meet their needs.
4. Emotional regulation and self-coping strategies
Alexithymia makes recognizing and understanding one’s emotions difficult. Autistic people often struggle with this, plus interoception (a form of alexithymia).
If your autistic child bites when they’re upset, they need to learn how to regulate their emotions and cope.
Validating their feelings and life experience, even if you don’t personally understand or relate. Before you can teach your autistic child how to regulate their emotions, you need the skill of regulating yours. This is how you develop a secure relationship with your autistic child.
Communication is key to determining the cause of the biting so you can redirect the behavior to something less harmful.
Putting an end to biting isn’t about stopping the biting; rather, it’s about getting to the root cause and remedying that. If you only focus on ending the behavior, your autistic child will seek alternative ways to fulfill their needs and learn that you can’t help them do that.